The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Well-Tempered Ear turns 10 today. Changes are probably in store. What do you like and dislike? What changes would you like to see or not to see?

August 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – August 20, 2019 – The Well-Tempered Ear turns 10 years old.

To keep it interesting, entertaining, relevant and useful, but also to offer an easier workload for something that is a hobby, some changes are probably in store and maybe even needed.

For example, the “You Must Hear This” postings that offer pieces of classical music or stories about national and international issues often generate more traffic than local events.

And even with 2.1 million hits, subscriptions seem to have plateaued.

Perhaps all that is because, even with the explosion in classical music over the past decade, many individuals and groups now have their own websites and email newsletters.

But The Ear wants to know what you think.

What would make you and others read the blog more and pass it along?

What do you like or dislike?

Should it even continue?

What changes, if any, would you like to see – or not to see?

Whatever you decide and share, thank you for 10 years of loyal reading, positive reactions and many, many comments.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: After a year recovering from an injury, Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang says he has become a more serious musician

August 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Chinese pianist Lang Lang (below) has long been popular, a best-selling superstar and one of the most bankable players in the business.

Yet such was his flamboyant showmanship and self-indulgence that many of his colleagues and critics did not take him very seriously. Many thought of him more as the Liberace of the classical concert stage.

But then a serious injury to his left arm, tendonitis from over-practicing and straining, forced Lang Lang to take a year off to recover.

During that time he married. He worked with young children and music students, even funding a new piano lab. And he released a new CD (“Piano Book”) of short pieces that he has loved since his student days. (You can see Lang Lang coaching a young pianist about a Mozart sonata that played a pivotal role in his life during a master class in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Lang Lang now says that during that recovery period he rethought everything about his career and has made some major changes from practicing to performing.

And what seems to have emerged, at age 37, is a new approach that emphasizes more seriousness and regularity coupled with greater respect for the music he plays.

Time will tell – in both live and recorded performances — how much has really changed in Lang Lang’s approach to making music.

Nonetheless, the dramatic change was recounted recently in a comprehensive story in The New York Times, which even goes back to trace the pianist’s career, including failures, from his early childhood (below) in China.

Read it and see what you think.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/24/arts/music/lang-lang-piano.html

Then tell us in the Comment section if it has changed how you think about Lang Lang.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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Classical music: Is a local Dvorak revival in the making? This Friday night, Christopher Taylor joins the Willy Street Chamber Players to perform the famed Piano Quintet

July 25, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Is a major local revival of music by Antonin Dvorak (below) in the making?

Many signs point to: Yes!

At the end of the past season, maestro John DeMain of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which has also performed the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” announced that he was on board as a fan when he told the audiences about the upcoming season, which features the MSO performing Dvorak’s dramatic Symphony No. 7 in D Minor and the large-scale Requiem.

In recent seasons, we have also seen the Madison Opera stage the opera “Rusalka”; the Middleton Community Orchestra perform the Symphony No. 6; the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte String Quartet and the Ancora String Quartet perform the miniatures “Cypresses”; the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra play some “Slavonic Dances”; and more.

What’s not to like about Dvorak? He was one of music’s greatest melodists, something that Johannes Brahms envied and a reason why Brahms helped promote his music. And his use of folk music – Czech, Native American and African-American – is captivating as well as multicultural.

Here is a link to more about Dvorak in his Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton%C3%ADn_Dvořák

As audience responses prove, there is so much Dvorak to be fond of.

But one of the greatest works will be performed this Friday night, July 26, at 6 p.m. in the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street.

That is when the Willy Street Chamber Players, in the final concert of their fifth summer series, will perform the famed Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81 (1887). (You can hear the engaging opening movement, played by pianist Evgeny Kissin and the Emerson String Quartet, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Willys will team up with the acclaimed UW-Madison virtuoso pianist and Van Cliburn Competition bronze medalist Christopher Taylor, who is a gifted chamber musician as well as a superb soloist.

Filling out the program are Three Nocturnes (1924) by Ernest Bloch and “Voodoo Dolls” (2008) by Jessie Montgomery.

Admission is $15 with a reception afterwards.

Dvorak, who has never fallen out of favor but who seems to have sparked a new enthusiasm, composed a lot.

In addition to the nine symphonies, the string serenade and the piano quintet, there is a lot of chamber music, including string quartets, piano trios, piano quartets; concertos for the violin, cello and piano; and many miniatures, including the lovely “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” There is also some solo piano music that has largely been neglected.

Do you love Dvorak’s music?

What about it do you especially like?

Do you have a favorite Dvorak work?

Let us know what it is, with a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Was Bernard Herrmann’s love theme in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” influenced by Antonin Dvorak’s “American Suite”?

July 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear spent an interesting and enjoyable Fourth of July holiday weekend.

Two of the most enjoyable things seemed to overlap unexpectedly.

On Wednesday night, I tuned into Turner Classic Movies. That’s when I watched, once again and with great pleasure, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful “North by Northwest (1959.”

The next morning, on Independence Day, I tuned in to Wisconsin Public Radio and heard a lot of music by American composers and by composers who were inspired by America.

That’s when I heard the “American Suite” (1895) by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (below), who directed a conservatory in New York City and liked to spend summers in a Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, where he was captivated by American music of Native Americans and African-Americans.

What overlapped was the music, the love theme between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint — called “Train Conversations” — by Bernard Herrmann (below) in the film and the opening of the suite by Dvorak.

But The Ear needs a reality check: Is the Ear the only one to hear striking similarities between the two?

Take a listen to the two works in the YouTube video below, decide for yourself and let us know if you hear the same influence.

To be sure, The Ear is not saying that Herrmann – a sophisticated American composer who knew classical music and who is perhaps best known for his edgy score to “Psycho,” which is often played in concert halls – completely lifted the music or stole it or plagiarized it.

But it certainly is possible that Herrmann was influenced or inspired by Dvorak – much the same way that Leonard Bernstein’s song “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” seems remarkably close to an opening theme in the slow middle movement of the Piano Concerto No. 5 – the famous “Emperor” Concerto — by Ludwig van Beethoven. The same goes for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who, some say, borrowed tunes more than once from Franz Schubert.

Well, if you’re going to borrow, why not do it from the best? And Dvorak was among the great melodists of all time, in company with Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc, to name a few of the best known.

Anyway, listen to the two scores and let us know what you think.

Can you think of other music that was perhaps influenced by a work of classical music? If so, leave a comment, with YouTube links if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July. Here is patriotic music to help celebrate, including a portrait of a truly presidential president for the purpose of comparison

July 4, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Fourth of July – a celebration of Independence Day when the United States officially declared its separation from Great Britain in 1776.

The day will be marked by picnics and barbecues, by local parades and spectacular fireworks – and this year by armored tanks and fighter jets in yet another expensive display of military power by You Know Who: that loudmouth man who overcompensates for dodging the draft by acting more like King George than George Washington.

The “Salute to America” sure looks like it is really going to be a “Salute to Trump.”

But whatever your politics, your preferences in presidents or the festive activities you have planned for today, there is classical music to help you mark and celebrate the occasion. Just go to Google and search for “classical music for the Fourth of July.”

Better yet, tune into Wisconsin Public Radio, which will be featuring American classical music all day long.

In addition, though, here are some oddities and well-known works that The Ear particularly likes and wants to share.

The first is the Russian immigrant composer and virtuoso pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his own version of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” something he apparently did out of respect for his adopted country before each recital he played in the U.S.:

And the second is by another Russian immigrant and piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz, who was a friend and colleague of Rachmaninoff. Here he is playing his piano arrangement, full of keyboard fireworks that sound much like a third hand playing, of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by American march king John Philip Sousa. Horowitz used the patriotic march to raise money and sell war bonds during World War II, then later used as an encore, which never failed to wow the audience:

For purposes of artistic and political comparisons of presidents, you will also find Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” – with famous actor and movie star Henry Fonda as the narrator of Honest Abe’s own extraordinary oratory and understated writing — in the YouTube video at the bottom.

And in a ironic twist The Ear can’t resist, here are nine pieces — many orchestral and some choral –chosen by the official website of the BBC Music Magazine in the United Kingdom to mark and honor American Independence Day. It has some surprises and is worth checking out:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/nine-best-works-independence-day

If you like or favor other works appropriate to the Fourth of July or have comments, just leave word and a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Why does Pavarotti – the man and now the movie – fascinate us?

June 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend a lot of people nationwide will go see the movie “Pavarotti,” the documentary by Ron Howard about the legendary Italian tenor who died 12 years ago.

Luciano Pavarotti (below) was and remains a superstar, a major cultural phenomenon, which is why Decca Records is cashing in by releasing not only the soundtrack to the documentary film but also a new 3-CD compilation of Pavarotti’s best singing.

It’s all so curious, especially if you compare Pavarotti’s artistic accomplishments against those of, say, Placido Domingo.

Pavarotti couldn’t read music.

He couldn’t act very convincingly.

The roles he learned were relatively limited in number.

He made major personal and professional missteps.

Yet we remain deeply drawn to Pavarotti.

Why?

It certainly has to do with his extraordinary voice, the tone and power of which could make your neck hairs stand on end, give you goosebumps, bring tears to your eyes and make you sob out loud.

Just listen to his singing of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” the crowd-pleasing signature aria from “Turandot” that Pavarotti performed over and over again in concerts, operas and at the famous “Three Tenors” stadium concerts. (You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But there is more to Pavarotti as a cultural phenomenon, much more, that tells us about ourselves and about the appeal of opera in general.

Without question, the best cultural analysis of Luciano Pavarotti that The Ear has ever seen or heard came recently from the critic Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times.

As Woolfe deconstructs “this hulking, sweaty man with stringy hair, a patchy beard and an unforgettable sound,” you learn much about the popular appeal – both high and low — of opera as well as the commercial and artistic appeal of Pavarotti.

Here is a link to Woolfe’s “Critic’s Notebook” analysis, which is well worth reading on its own or either before or after you see the new film.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/arts/music/pavarotti-ron-howard.html

And here is the official trailer for the film, with comments from many of his colleagues, which gets mixed reviews:

What do you think of Zachary Woolfe’s analysis of Pavarotti?

Why do you think the singer was so popular?

What is your favorite performance of his?

And if you saw the film, what did you think of it? Do you recommend seeing it?

Leave a comment.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Here is a sonic and visual “D-Day Symphony” to mark the event – as well as two moving pieces to honor the day and the dead. What music would you choose?

June 6, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, that deadly day – June 6, 1944 — when massive Allied forces (below, seen gathering on Omaha Beach) invaded the Normandy coast of France in Nazi-occupied Europe, beginning the liberation from Hitler’ Germany and the end of World War II.

In searching for music to mark the occasion, The Ear returned to two of the best pieces of memorial music he knows of and which are below: the “Nimrod” Variation from Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, a piece that was used in Ken Burn’s celebrated TV documentary about World War II; and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

It seems only fitting to the occasion to have works by an American composer and a British composer.

But in searching for music, The Ear also stumbled by chance across a little-known piece that uses a work by a French composer, which also seems fitting for the occasion and the day. It is a sonic and visual symphony of remembrance – a “D-Day Symphony,” if you will — that uses the second movement from the Symphony No. 3 by Arthur Honegger. It is in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The Ear hopes you also find the work moving and a welcome, if largely unknown, addition to musical remembrances for this historic event. Tell us what you think.

And if there is another work you would listen to while marking the anniversary of D-Day, please leave your comment along with the composer and title and, if possible, a YouTube link in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: The future of Western classical music is in Asia – specifically China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Why is that?

May 25, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not just about Lang Lang.

The signs are everywhere.

They were present at a recent piano recital by elementary school, middle school and high school students that The Ear attended.

You see it at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music and at top music schools, including the Curtis Institute of Music, across the U.S. and Western Europe. And you see it in youth groups such as the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (below).

Western classical music recording labels, such as Deutsche Grammophon and Sony Classical, are looking to develop new markets and so are signing more Asian musicians, such as the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Shanghai String Quartet, and releasing more Asian performances. (Below is the Taiwanese-Australian, prize-winning violinist Ray Chen, who is also a master at using social media to build his meteoric career.)

All these items point to the same conclusion: The future of Western classical music looks more and more likely to be found in Asian culture and in Asia  – specifically in China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. (Next season, prize-winning South Korean pianist Joyce Yang (below) returns to Madison, where she first gave a recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, to solo with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.)

Consider some of the following:

There are, The Ear read somewhere, now more piano students in China than in all of Europe, North America and South America combined. And he is reading about more and more concert tours of China and other Asian countries by Western performers — even while in the U.S. the number of pianos in homes are on the decline.

Increasingly the winners of major international competitions — such as the Chopin competition, the Van Cliburn competition, the Tchaikovsky competition, the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium competition and the Leeds competition – come from Asia or are Asian. (Below, in a photo by Simon Fowler, is American pianist George Li, who immigrated from China as a child and attended Harvard and the New England Conservatory before winning a silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition. His concert career is now blossoming fast.)

In recent years, China has been building a lot of first-rate concert halls, opera houses and music schools. And the famed Juilliard School in New York City will open its second campus this fall in Tianjin, near Beijing.

China has certainly come a long way from the days of the Cultural Revolution when people could be imprisoned for listening to Beethoven, who is now a cultural icon in China — as you can hear at the bottom in the YouTube video of Li Jing Zhan conducting the orchestra at the Chinese National Opera in Beethoven’s No. 7. (Below is the striking new National Center for the Performing Arts in China.)

https://www.interlude.hk/front/culture-construction-chinas-new-concert-halls/

Nineteen of the 24 final competitors, ages 13-17, in the second Van Cliburn Junior Competition – which starts in Dallas, Texas, on May 31 and ends on June 8 – are Asian, Asian-American and Asian-Canadian, all with astonishingly impressive credentials and experience. It will be streamed live and free. Take a look and listen:

https://www.cliburn.org/2019-cliburn-junior-competitors/

Why this Asian shift is happening remains somewhat of a mystery to The Ear, although he had been thinking about for a long time.

Then he came across a op-ed column confirming the prevalence of Asian classical musicians. It was written by the American concert pianist and teacher Inna Faliks (below), who teaches at UCLA and who wrote convincingly about her recent concert experiences in China in The Washington Post.

Read it and see what you think, and tell us whether you agree:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-future-of-classical-music-is-chinese/2019/03/22/2649e9dc-4cb5-11e9-93d0-64dbcf38ba41_story.html?utm_term=.7f149e0f8eb9

Why are Asians so interested in Western classical music and music education? And why do they respect it or even revere it so much?

Does it have to do with the “tiger mom” phenomenon of strong parental pressure to succeed and achieve?

Is it largely a function of population?

Is it because of the collective teamwork required to make a lot of chamber music and orchestral music, or with the intense and instructive teacher-student relationship?

Is it because the cultural depth and seriousness in Western music education – ing contrast to the increasingly pop culture of the West – that prepares students well for the training and intellectual discipline required in other educational fields and careers, including the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?

Is Asia simply fascinated by Western culture the same way that Western culture was fascinated by the exotic Asian cultures – especially in China and Japan — during the 19th century and earlier? Or is the West increasingly ignoring its own culture. (The Ear can’t recall any classical musicians performing at President Donald Trump’s White House. Can you?)

How do you see the situation and react to it? And what do you think about the causes and effects?

Please leave your reactions and thoughts in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: This afternoon is the last performance by the Madison Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.” The critics and public agree: “Don’t miss it!”

May 5, 2019
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IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is your last chance to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) perform Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 8, called the “Symphony of a Thousand.”

The big work celebrates a big event: The closing of the 25th anniversary season of music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), who discussed the Mahler symphony and played recorded excerpts with radio host Norman Gilliland on last Thursday’s edition of The Midday on Wisconsin Public Radio:

https://www.wpr.org/shows/symphony-thousand

The critics are unanimous in their praise.

Sure, they voice a few minor quibbles here and there.

But mostly they agree: This is a must-hear performance of an epic and complex 90-minute work by Mahler (below) that is rarely heard live because it requires such massive forces and such accomplished performers. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Klaus Tennstedt, the London Philharmonic and soloists perform the finale to the rapturous “Symphony of a Thousand.”)

Specifically, that means that if you go, you will hear more than 500 performers who include: the symphony orchestra; the concert organ; eight highly acclaimed guest vocal soloists; and three choirs, including the University of Wisconsin Choral Union.

But you can see and judge for yourself.

Here is a link to a posting last week on this blog with more information about the concert, the performers and other tickets:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/04/29/classical-music-this-coming-weekend-the-madison-symphony-orchestra-and-other-individuals-and-groups-join-forces-to-close-john-demains-25th-season-with-mahlers-monumental-s/

Here is a link to the review of the opening night that John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

https://isthmus.com/music/monumental-closer/

Here is a link to the review that Matt Ambrosio wrote for The Capital Times:

https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts-and-theatre/madison-symphony-closes-its-season-with-spectacular-symphony-of-a/article_44b26d91-e0f0-5d67-88b9-10cd5e8c5c6d.html

And here are some reviews on Facebook by ordinary listeners and concertgoers:

https://www.facebook.com/pg/MadisonSymphony/posts/

You can also leave your opinion in the comment section of this blog.

The Ear wants to hear.


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